There’s a new drink that could not only help you lose weight, but could also treat epilepsy, diabetes and possibly even Alzheimer’s. It might also be an incredible energy booster. When a group of international rowing champions took it, one of them beat a world record. It sounds far too good to be true, but the drink’s scientific credentials are impeccable. It’s been developed by Kieran Clarke, professor of physiological biochemistry at Oxford University and head of its Cardiac Metabolism Research Group, at the behest of the U.S. Army. Equally amazing is that the drink doesn’t involve a new drug. It contains something our bodies produce all the time.
This key ingredient is ketones — the tiny, but powerful sources of energy our bodies make naturally when we start using up our fat stores for energy because there are no carbs around.
We all have slightly raised ketone levels before breakfast because we haven’t eaten for a while. And if you fast for a few days or go on an Atkins-type high-fat diet, your body will start pumping out ketones. They are nature’s way of keeping you supplied with energy — especially your brain and muscles.
The clever trick Professor Clarke has pulled off is to have found a way to make ketones in the lab. This means that instead of having to follow difficult diets (with unpleasant side-effects such as constipation and bad breath), you can just add ketones to a normal diet — in the form of the Drink, as it’s known.
It’s a radical new approach, which flies in the face of more than 30 years of advice that a low-fat diet with lots of carbohydrates is the best way to lose weight, treat diabetes and protect your heart. It also raises questions about the demonising of diets such as Atkins, which are blamed for causing constipation and kidney failure.
IT TRICKS YOUR BODY INTO BURNING OFF FAT
So how do ketones help? They are the reason why high-fat diets such as Atkins seem to work so well. Without the energy from carbohydrates, your body starts releasing stored fat, which the liver turns into ketones for energy.
The pounds drop off faster than with a low-fat diet because you are actively burning up stored fat. But there are other benefits of these ketogenic diets, as they are called. Blood sugar levels come down because you are eating hardly any carbohydrates.
In a study published earlier this year, Professor Clarke found that rats given the new ketone compound ate less and put on less weight than those getting the same amount of calories from a high-fat or a high-carbohydrate diet.
In the first trial Professor Clarke has run on humans with diabetes, completed within the past few months, the effects were also impressive. In the week-long study, eight people with diabetes had three ketone drinks a day as well as their normal diet.
As with the rats, their weight dropped (an average of nearly 2 per cent of their body weight), but so did their glucose levels, cholesterol and the amount of fat in the blood. The amount of exercise they did went up as they had more energy. However, the study was small and as yet unpublished.
To anyone with diabetes, the idea of ketones being good seems extraordinary. That’s because they are usually warned that high ketones can be very dangerous. In fact, the danger is limited to cases where the diabetes isn’t controlled and the patient has very high blood sugar levels as well.
That’s rare these days with effective drugs. Indeed, very high-fat diets, which produce ketones, are being tested as a treatment for diabetes.
HELPING CHILDREN WITH EPILEPSY
The Drink has its roots in ketogenic diets, which are designed to raise ketone production. One medical area where a very high-fat ketogenic diet is used as standard treatment is in childhood epilepsy.
A review by the Cochrane Collaboration found that in children who weren’t responding to drugs, it was as effective as medication would normally be.
This followed a major study conducted four years ago by Professor Helen Cross, a neurologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, which showed the diet was effective.
‘About 30 per cent of epileptic children don’t respond to drugs and they can have a dreadful time — 100 fits a day is not uncommon,’ says Susan Wood, a registered dietician who works for the charity Matthew’s Friends Clinics, which aims to make a high ketogenic diet available to all children who may benefit from it.
‘We see a big drop in the number of seizures in nearly 40 per cent of the children who go on the diet.’
It’s thought the diet helps suppress stimulation signals to the brain.
The problem is that ketogenic diets can be hard to follow. A typical high-fat diet for children with epilepsy, for instance, includes oil, butter, double cream, eggs, mayonnaise and cheese. Not to everyone’s taste.
Even more difficult on this sort of diet, you have almost no fruit or vegetables (most count as carbo-hydrates) — this can lead to mineral and vitamin shortages and a raised risk of heart disease from all the fat.
THE U.S. ARMY RIDES TO THE RESCUE
And this is where the U.S. Army comes in. Like other radical innovations, such as the internet, driverless cars and a battery-powered human ‘exoskeleton’, the ketone drink was the result of a commission from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is set up to research imaginative high-risk projects.
‘Back in 2003 they were looking for an energy source that would improve soldiers’ mental and physical performance under battlefield conditions,’ says Professor Clarke. ‘Troops weren’t taking enough rations into action because they filled their rucksacks with extra ammunition instead. As their blood glucose dropped, they became confused and sometimes ended up shooting their own side.’
Professor Clarke had been working on ketones as a high energy source for more than a decade when she approached DARPA, who funded the research that allowed her to discover a way to make ketones in the lab.
‘No one had done it before,’ she says. ‘We called it DeltaG, which is the biochemical name for energy, but also has a military ring to it — Delta Force and all.’ She tried the new compound on rats and found it boosted physical and mental performance.
But that wasn’t all. The rats became much healthier. They lost body fat, had lower levels of triglycerides (fatty acids) in their blood and lower blood sugar levels. There were no signs of harmful side-effects.
U.S. defence chiefs are reportedly delighted with the Drink, but it’s expected to be a while before it’s taken up on a large scale by the Army.
So how does a drink that adds ketones help you lose weight if you’re not burning fat to produce those ketones in the first place? It is because ketones make you less hungry — they damp down hunger centres in the brain. This means you eat less and so you have the same weight loss as on a high-fat diet.
Meanwhile, because you’re eating less, your blood sugar levels come down (which is good for diabetics).
LOSE WEIGHT AND HAVE MORE ENERGY
Eighteen months ago, Professor Clarke tried her ketones on rowers.
DeltaG ketones come in a thick, clear liquid that is very bitter, so in the trials on rats and humans, it has a little water added along with orange-coloured flavouring plus some sweeteners to make it more palatable — in this form it’s known as the Drink.
A group of top international rowers were given it shortly before they rowed on fixed machines in a lab.
After half an hour of hard rowing, those getting the Drink had rowed on average 50m further in the same time than when they had a dummy drink. This was an improvement of 0.5 per cent. It can be the difference between silver and gold.
Dr Scott Drawer, head of research at UK Sport, who helped design the trial, said: ‘Ketones have been ignored as an energy source in sport. We need to look at them seriously.’
DON’T WORRY ABOUT SIDE-EFFECTS
The big idea of the Drink is that it is a way to get the benefits of weight loss and metabolic improvements that come with raised ketones without going through the pain of the diet.
But what about the dangers of high levels of ketones? Ketogenic diets are linked with constipation (through lack of roughage) and sometimes bad breath (the result of the way ketones happen to smell). Increased ketone levels may also lead to kidney failure, osteoporosis, cancer and heart disease, according to NHS Direct.
Professor Clarke believes fears about raising ketone levels are based on a misunderstanding. ‘Our bodies have a parallel system designed to make use of ketones as an energy source, which is faster and more efficient than the way our bodies use glucose. Gram for gram, ketones give you 38 per cent more energy than glucose,’ she says.
‘The trouble is we rarely need to use ketones because we are surrounded by food. But that’s happened only in the past 50 years when everyone has had enough to eat. Before that many people would often be ketogenic.’
The ketone pathway developed as a way to provide animals and humans with energy in times of famine; it’s only if someone has uncontrolled diabetes that raising ketones is dangerous.
BUT IT’S NOT AN EXCUSE TO BE LAZY
But what do other experts think? Dr Rhys Evans, reader in physiology, anatomy and genetics at Keble College, Oxford says: ‘Ketones are a superb source of energy, so it makes perfectly good sense to use them as extra fuel for the brain and muscles.’
‘Kieran has pulled off a neat chemical trick creating a new version in the lab. In metabolic terms, this offers some new and exciting possibilities.’
Epilepsy researcher Professor Cross adds: ‘Getting the new ketones could be a boon.’
When it comes to epilepsy, neurologists are concerned about the health risks of a high-fat diet, while sticking to it can be difficult for children — a ketone drink could be more appealing.
So why haven’t we heard about this before? It’s because ketones are a natural product that can’t be turned into a top-selling treatment, so no drug company is interested.
‘We have a problem raising the money just to produce enough of it to run trials cheaply,’ says Professor Clarke (which is why you won’t see it in shops for some time).
She adds: ‘DeltaG is not a licence to stay glued to the TV eating take-aways. It provides 10 per cent of your total calories (each drink is around 200 calories), so if you are going to lose weight you are going to have to cut that much from your diet or you would put on weight.
‘For best results, you should be eating a sensible, healthy diet, maybe some variation of the Mediterranean.’
And then there is the taste — ‘It tastes dreadful — just like the cold remedy Benylin — so you’d take it only if you had to,’ says Professor Clarke.
But losing weight without feeling hungry might prove pretty attractive!